Liberal Muslim movements

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For modernist reform movements in Islam, see Islamic Modernism.
World Muslim population by percentage (Pew Research Center, 2014).

Liberal movements within Islam involve professed Muslims who have produced a considerable body of liberal thought on the re-interpretation and reform of Islamic understanding and practice.[1][2] Their work is sometimes characterized as "progressive Islam" (Arabic: الإسلام التقدمي‎‎ al-Islām at-taqaddumī ), some regard progressive Islam and liberal Islam as two distinct movements.[3]

The methodologies of liberal or progressive Islam rest on the interpretation and re-interpretation of traditional Islamic scripture (the Quran) and other texts (such as the Hadith), a process called ijtihad (see below).[4] This can vary from the slight to the most liberal, where only the meaning of the Quran is considered to be a revelation, with its expression in words seen as the work of the prophet Muhammad in his particular time and context. As a consequence, liberal/progressive Muslims may then interpret verses from the Quran allegorically or even set them aside.

Liberal Muslim intellectuals who have focused on religious reform include Muhammad Ali, Sayyid al-Qimni, Irshad Manji, Nasr Abu Zayd, Khalil Abdel-Karim, Abdolkarim Soroush, Mohammed Arkoun, Mohammed Shahrour, Ahmed Subhy Mansour, Edip Yuksel, Gamal al-Banna, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri,[5] Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, Ahmed Al-Gubbanchi, Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, and Faraj Foda. Taha was hanged in 1985 under the sharia regime of Jaafar al-Nimeiri[6] and Foda was assassinated in 1992 by al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya.[7]

Some liberal Muslims see themselves as returning to the principles of the early Ummah and to a claimed ethical and pluralistic intent of their scripture, the Quran.[8] They distance themselves from some traditional and less liberal interpretations of Islamic law which they regard as culturally based and without universal applicability. The reform movement uses monotheism (tawhid) "as an organizing principle for human society and the basis of religious knowledge, history, metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics, as well as social, economic and world order".[9]


See also: Reformism

The reform movements of Islam, like Reform Judaism, are movements within their parent religion, rather than an attempt at schism. They seek to adapt a traditional religion to liberal, human rights–oriented values, like Reform Judaism does with Judaism.

Reform Muslims, like their more orthodox peers, believe in the basic tenets of Islam, such as the Six Elements of Belief and the Five Pillars and they consider their views to be fully compatible with Islam. Their main differences with more conservative Islamic opinion are twofold. The first lies in differences of interpretation of how to apply the core Islamic values to modern life,[10] the second a more reactionary dialectic which criticizes traditional narratives or even rejects them, thus denying any obligation to follow them while also allowing greater freedom in interpreting Quran regardless of the hadith.[11]

Central tenets[edit]

Several generally accepted tenets have emerged:

  • The autonomy of the individual in interpreting the Quran and Hadith.[12] More liberal trends include rejecting Hadiths completely (like Quran Alone Muslims) or partially (including hadiths considered authentic (Sahih) by traditionalists) like Gamal Al-Banna.
  • A more critical and diverse examination of religious texts, as well as traditional Islamic precedents.
  • Complete gender equality in all aspects, including ritual prayer and observance.
  • A more open view on modern culture in relation to customs, dress, and common practices. Certain rules on modesty amongst men and women are still self-enforced in response to the Quran's injunction against immodest dress.
  • The individual use of ijtihad (interpretation) and fitrah (natural sense of right and wrong) is advocated.

Contemporary and controversial issues[edit]

Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, in accordance with their increasingly modern societies and outlooks, liberal Muslims have tended to reinterpret many aspects of the application of their religion in their life in an attempt to reconnect with the original message, untouched by harmful cultural influences. This is particularly true of Muslims who now find themselves living in non-Muslim countries.[13]

Such people may describe themselves variously as liberal, progressive, or reformist (in application but not in the tenets of the faith); but rather than implying a specific agenda, these terms tend to incorporate a broad spectrum of views which contest conservative, traditional interpretations of Islam in many different ways. Although there is no full consensus amongst liberal Muslims on their views, they tend to agree on some or all of the following beliefs:


In The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam one of Islam's greatest philosophers, Muhammad Iqbal called for a re-examination of the intellectual foundations of Islamic philosophy. The book is a major work of modern Islamic thought and it was a major influence on Ghulam Ahmed Pervez and the organization Tolu-e-Islam.


Main article: Ijtihad

Critical ijtihad is the questioning of traditional interpretations of the Qur'an which reformist Muslims found to be intellectually stifling in the light of modern wisdom and scientific knowledge. Most liberal Muslims reject the derivation of Islamic laws from absolute literal readings of single Quranic verses. They generally claim a holistic view which takes into account the 7th-century Arabian cultural context and then allows deeper insight into the manner in which the commands of God (Allah) are carried out. Some scholars, however, say that this is a veiled form of "biddah", or innovation, and reject critical evaluation as a whole.

Human rights[edit]

Moderate Islamic political thought contends that the nurturing of the Muslim identity and the propagation of values such as democracy and human rights are not mutually exclusive, but rather should be promoted together.[14]

Most liberal Muslims believe that Islam promotes the notion of absolute equality of all humanity, and that it is one of its central concepts. Therefore, a breach of human rights has become a source of great concern to most liberal Muslims.[15] Though human rights is perceived to be of the utmost concern of all devoted adherents to the Islamic faith,[citation needed] liberal Muslims differ with their culturally conservative counterparts in that they believe that all humanity is represented under the umbrella of human rights. Many Muslim majority countries have signed international human rights treaties, but the impact of these largely remains to be seen in local legal systems – a point highlighted by the fact that most countries which impose conservative interpretations of Shariah law are amongst the most repressive countries in the world, while secular states are often the most open and tolerant.[16]

Muslim liberals often reject traditional interpretations of Islamic law, which allows Ma malakat aymanukum and Slavery. They say that Slavery opposed Islamic principles which they believe to be based on justice and equality and some say that verses relating to slavery or "Ma malakat aymanukum" now can not be applied due to the fact that the world has changed, while others say that those verses are totally misinterpreted and twisted to legitimize slavery.[17][18]

Within the framework of justice and equality for all, Muslim liberals include gay rights as a human right.[citation needed]


Main article: Islamic feminism
Islamic feminism symbol.

The place of women in Islam, correct gender roles in Islam and Islamic feminism are likewise major issues.[19] For this reason, liberal Muslims are often critical of traditional Islamic law interpretations which allow polygyny for men but not polyandry for women, as well as the traditional Islamic law of inheritance under which daughters receive less than sons. Traditional Muslims believe this is balanced by the right of a woman to be taken care of by her brother(s) until her marriage, and the rights of a wife to her husband's money and her dowry (Mahr), whereas the husband does not have a right to his wife's money. In addition to paying for the younger sister's upkeep, the surviving sons need additional funds to pay dowries to their future wives, an expense women do not have to bear.

It is also accepted by most liberal Muslims that a woman may lead the state, and that women should not be segregated from men in society or in mosques. These views are generally rejected by traditional Muslim scholars, including scholars from the four schools of Islamic thought[which?], as they have been in the past. Some liberal Muslims accept that a woman may lead a mixed group in prayers, despite the established custom for women to pray behind or in a separate space. However, this issue remains controversial; see women as imams. Some Muslim feminists are also opposed to the traditional dress requirements for women (commonly called hijab), claiming that any modest clothing is sufficiently Islamic for both men and women. Some of the groups, particularly the Quranists, reject hadiths.


Some liberal Muslims favor the idea of modern secular democracy with separation of church and state, and thus oppose Islam as a political movement.

The existence or applicability of Islamic law is questioned by some liberals. Their argument often involves variants of the Mu'tazili theory that the Quran was created by God for the particular circumstances of the early Muslim community and that reason must be used to apply it in other contexts.

Tolerance and non-violence[edit]

Main article: Islam and violence

Tolerance is another key tenet of liberal Muslims, who are generally open to interfaith dialogue and conflict resolution with such communities as Jews, Christians, Hindus and the numerous factions within Islam.

Liberal Muslims are more likely to reflect the idea of jihad in terms of the widely accepted "internal spiritual struggle" rather than an "armed struggle". The ideals of non-violence are prevalent in Liberal Muslim ideology and backed by Qu'ranic text; "permission to fight is given only to those who have been oppressed... who have been driven from their homes for saying, 'God is our Lord'" (22:39). This idea is however not exclusive to liberal Muslims but is also followed in traditional Islam. Most following Islam, liberal or otherwise, accept that jihad is more of the heart than with the sword.[citation needed] According to traditional Islamic scholars, the sword is only drawn under circumstances which oppress the Muslim community and even in those circumstances, the strict Islamic guidelines for war have to be followed. This includes not engaging in violence with non combatants, women, children and not to destroy even the crops of the enemy lands and not to attack the people engaged in combat within places of worship unless they attack first.

Reliance on secular scholarship[edit]

Liberal Muslims[who?] tend to be skeptical about the validity of Islamization of knowledge[citation needed] (including Islamic economics, Islamic science, Islamic history and Islamic philosophy) as separate from mainstream fields of inquiry. This is usually due to the often secular outlook of Muslim liberals, which makes them more disposed to trust mainstream secular scholarship. They may also regard the propagation of these fields as merely a propaganda move by Muslim conservatives.[20]


Gülen movement[edit]

The Hizmet movement led by Turkish Islamic scholar and preacher Fethullah Gülen in Turkey, Central Asia, and in other parts of the world is active in education with private schools and universities in over 180 countries as well as many American charter schools operated by followers. It has initiated forums for interfaith dialogue.[21][22] The Cemaat movement's structure has been described as a flexible organizational network.[23] Movement schools and businesses organize locally and link themselves into informal networks.[24] Estimates of the number of schools and educational institutions vary widely; there appeared to be about 300 Gülen movement schools in Turkey prior to the attempted coup d'etat in July 2016 but it is unclear how many (if any) of these institutions will survive the subsequent purge and persecution initiated by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's government following the defeat of the coup. The claimed total of over 1,000 schools worldwide[25][26] may have to be revised down in the light of the effective proscription of the movement's overt operations in Turkey.

Fethullah Gülen advocates cooperation between followers of different religions as well as those practicing different forms of Islam such as Alevi and Sunni in Turkey. Gülen movement participants have founded a number of institutions across the World that claim to promote interfaith and intercultural dialogue activities. Among them the major ones are Istanbul based Journalists and Writers Foundation, Washington, D.C. based Rumi Forum, and New Delhi based Indialogue Foundation.

Islamic Modernism[edit]

Main article: Islamic Modernism

Islamic Modernism is a movement that has been described as "the first Muslim ideological response"[a] attempting to reconcile Islamic faith with modern Western values such as nationalism, democracy, civil rights, rationality, equality, and progress.[28] It featured a "critical reexamination of the classical conceptions and methods of jurisprudence" and a new approach to Islamic theology and Quranic exegesis (Tafsir).[27]

It was the first of several Islamic movements – including secularism, Islamism and Salafism – that emerged in the middle of the 19th century in reaction to the rapid changes of the time, especially the perceived onslaught of Western Civilization and colonialism on the Muslim world.[28] Founders include Muhammad Abduh, a Sheikh of Al-Azhar University for a brief period before his death in 1905, Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, and Muhammad Rashid Rida (d. 1935).

The early Islamic Modernists (al-Afghani and Muhammad Abdu) used the term "salafiyya"[29] to refer to their attempt at renovation of Islamic thought,[30] and this "salafiyya movement" is often known in the West as "Islamic modernism," although it is very different from what is currently called the Salafi movement, which generally signifies "ideologies such as wahhabism".[b] Since its inception, Modernism has suffered from co-option of its original reformism by both secularist rulers and by "the official ulama" whose "task it is to legitimise" rulers' actions in religious terms.[31]

Modernism differs from secularism in that it insists on the importance of religious faith in public life, and from Salafism or Islamism in that it embraces contemporary European institutions, social processes, and values.[28]


Main article: Quranism

Quranists believe Muhammad himself was a Quranist and the founder of Quranism, and that his followers distorted the faith and split into schisms and factions such as Sunni, Shia, and Khawarij. Quranists reject the hadith and follow the Quran only. The extent to which Quranists reject the authenticity of the Sunnah varies,[32] but the more established groups have thoroughly criticised the authenticity of the hadith and refused it for many reasons, the most prevalent being the Quranist claim that hadith is not mentioned in the Quran as a source of Islamic theology and practice, was not recorded in written form until more than two centuries after the death of the Muhammed, and contain perceived internal errors and contradictions.[32][33]


Main article: Tolu-e-Islam

The movement was initiated by Muhammad Iqbal, and later spearheaded by Ghulam Ahmed Pervez. Ghulam Ahmed Pervez did not reject all hadiths; however, he only accepted hadiths which "are in accordance with the Quran or do not stain the character of the Prophet or his companions".[34] The organization publishes and distributes books, pamphlets, and recordings of Pervez's teachings.[34]

Tolu-e-Islam does not belong to any political party, nor does it belong to any religious group or sect. It is strictly against sectarianism, because such acts of creating sects/divisions in Islam is equal in magnitude to "Shirk" i.e. rejection of Monotheism.[35]

North America[edit]


In Russia and CIS, Sufi orders movements within Islam (social Islam). In Europe there are associations of progressive Muslims.


PPP is the party with Liberal stance and Islam was official religion in Indonesia that established in 1973.


At least one observer (Max Rodenbeck) has noted several challenges to "reform"—i.e. accommodation with the enlightenment, reason and science, the separation of religion and politics—that the other two Abrahamic faiths did not have to grapple with:

whereas Christian and Jewish reform evolved over centuries, in relatively organic and self-generated—albeit often bloody—fashion, the challenge to Islam of such concepts as empirical reasoning, the nation-state, the theory of evolution, and individualism arrived all in a heap and all too often at the point of a gun.[36]

In addition traditional sharia law has been shaped in all its complexity by serving for centuries as "the backbone" of legal systems of Muslim states, while millions of Muslim now live in non-Muslim states. Islam also lacks a "widely recognized religious hierarchy to explain doctrinal changes or to enforce them" because it has no [central] church.[36]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ "Islamic modernism was the first Muslim ideological response to the Western cultural challenge. Started in India and Egypt in the second part of the 19th century ... reflected in the work of a group of like-minded Muslim scholars, featuring a critical reexamination of the classical conceptions and methods of jurisprudence and a formulation of a new approach to Islamic theology and Quranic exegesis. This new approach, which was nothing short of an outright rebellion against Islamic orthodoxy, displayed astonishing compatibility with the ideas of the Enlightenment."[27]
  2. ^ "Salafism is, therefore, a modern phenomenon, being the desire of contemporary Muslims to rediscover what they see as the pure, original and authentic Islam, ... However, there is a difference between two profoundly different trends which sought inspiration from the concept of salafiyya. Indeed, between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of 20th century, intellectuals such as Jamal Edin al-Afghani and Muhammad Abdu used salafiyya to mean a renovation of Islamic thought, with features that would today be described as rationalist, modernist and even progressive. This salafiyya movement is often known in the West as “Islamic modernism.‘ However, the term salafism is today generally employed to signify ideologies such as Wahhabism, the puritanical ideology of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."[30]


  1. ^ "Finally: Muslims Speak Out Against Jihad". Accuracy In Media. Retrieved 22 March 2015. 
  2. ^ Safi, O: "Progressive Muslims", One World: Oxford, 2003.
  3. ^ Averroes Foundation Archived July 9, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
  4. ^ Aslan, R: "No god but God", Random House, 2005.
  5. ^ Bennett, Clinton; Ramsey, Charles M. (2012). "When Sufi tradition reinvents Islamic Modernity; The Minhaj al-Qur'an". South Asian Sufis: Devotion, Deviation, and Destiny. Great Britain: Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 978-1472523518. 
  6. ^ Packer, George (11 September 2006). "The Moderate Martyr - A radically peaceful vision of Islam.". The New Yorker. Condé Nast. Retrieved 2 December 2015. 
  7. ^ "DOCUMENT - EGYPT: HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES BY ARMED GROUPS". Amnesty International. September 1998. Retrieved 2 December 2015. 
  8. ^ Muslim Council of Britain Archived June 7, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  9. ^ "Tawhid". Retrieved 22 March 2015. 
  10. ^ " Islam Religion In The Modern World". Retrieved 22 March 2015. 
  11. ^ From the article Where We Went Wrong: A Hard Look at Hadith by Jamal Khawaja
  12. ^ About Liberal Islam[non-primary source needed] Archived January 4, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  13. ^ Being a Muslim in the U.S.ا Archived January 3, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  14. ^ The Fundamentalist City?: Religiosity and the Remaking of Urban Space, Nezar Alsayyad (ed.), Chapter 7: "Hamas in Gaza Refugee camps: The Construction of Trapped Spaces for the Survival of Fundamentalism", Francesca Giovannini. Taylor & Francis, 2010. ISBN 978-0-415-77936-4."
  15. ^ Hassan Mahmoud Khalil: "Islam's position on violence and violation of human rights", Dar Al-Shaeb, 1994.
  16. ^ The Soft Power for the Islamic Movement Archived January 6, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  17. ^ "Writer and Islamic thinker "Gamal al-Banna": The Muslim Brotherhood is not fit to rule (2-2)". Retrieved 2016-03-25. 
  18. ^ "Writer and Islamic thinker "Gamal al-Banna": The Muslim Brotherhood is not fit to rule (1-2)". 2008-02-18. Retrieved 2016-03-25. 
  19. ^ A History of Women in Islam, by Jamal Khawaja
  20. ^ S. Irfan Habib: "The Viability of Islamic Science", Economic and Political Weekly, June 5, 2004.
  21. ^ "The Turkish exception: Gallipoli, Gülen, and capitalism". Australia's ABC. Radio National. 31 August 2013. Retrieved 3 September 2013. 
  22. ^ "Islamist Mobilization in Turkey". Retrieved 5 January 2016. 
  23. ^ "- - Dialogue with the Islamic World". - Dialogue with the Islamic World. Retrieved 5 January 2016. 
  24. ^ Kevin Miller, Jr. "Islam in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan". Retrieved 5 January 2016. 
  25. ^ Reuters Editorial (14 May 2008). "Turkish Islamic preacher - threat or benefactor?". Reuters UK. Retrieved 5 January 2016. 
  26. ^ "Türk Okulları". Retrieved 5 January 2016. 
  27. ^ a b Mansoor Moaddel. Islamic Modernism, Nationalism, and Fundamentalism: Episode and Discourse. University of Chicago Press. p. 2. 
  28. ^ a b c Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World, Thompson Gale (2004)
  29. ^ Salafism, Modernist Salafism from the 20th Century to the Present
  30. ^ a b Atzori, Daniel (August 31, 2012). "The rise of global Salafism". Retrieved 6 January 2015. 
  31. ^ Ruthven, Malise (2006) [1984]. Islam in the World. Oxford University Press. p. 318. Retrieved 23 April 2015. 
  32. ^ a b Richard Stephen Voss, Identifying Assumptions in the Hadith/Sunnah Debate,, Accessed December 5, 2013
  33. ^ Aisha Y. Musa, The Qur’anists, Florida International University, accessed May 22, 2013.
  34. ^ a b "Bazm-e-Tolu-e-Islam". Retrieved 22 March 2015. 
  35. ^ "The Quran, Verse 30:31-32". 
  36. ^ a b Rodenbeck, Max (3 December 2015). "How She Wants to Modify Muslims [Review of Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now by Ayaan Hirsi Ali]". New York Review of Books. LXII (19): 36. Retrieved 18 November 2015. 

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